Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Tears of academia

It's only 10am on a Wednesday and I have already had two girls crying in my office.

I'm TAing for a lab that is based on animal behavior. I was very excited to get this teaching assignment -- animal behavior is my specialty and what I really want to focus on when I myself become a professor some day. I just love sitting and watching animals and trying to figure out what motivates them or what influences them and (perhaps most importantly) how to design elegant experiments that really give us data that we can use to better understand why animals behave the way that they do. I am a dork and I really enjoy this. A lot. Which is perhaps why I am trying to make it my career.

But this course that I am TAing isn't exactly all about the animals. It's more of an intensive writing class on how to write up a lab report and we just happen to use animals as a way of generating data. But -- and this is the problem -- we don't actually teach the students how to write a lab report.

Does any of this make sense to you?

It doesn't really to me. I am all about learning from mistakes. But I am also partial to actually teaching skills that are necessary to do well in the course.

The professor who runs this lab (aka my advisor) basically gives a 20 minute overview of the animal subjects and basic methodology of the lab at hand. And that's it. Then the students need to generate their own hypotheses and somehow magically write a perfect lab report that would be suitable for publication (with increased sample size, of course).

So, needless to say, the first round of lab reports did not go so well. Many Ds. A few Cs. One B+. And 2 Fs. It was difficult for me to read them and it was difficult for the students to get the reports back.

But, here's another kicker, they had to hand in their second report BEFORE they got the first one back. Which means they made all of the same mistakes again. And I have to mark them wrong for all of those mistakes again.

It just seems silly to me to have them write two bad lab reports in a row. My advisor thinks it is fine because they have the chance to re-write these first two assignments, making corrections and improving their grades. But that just means double the work for them -- AND ME! Perhaps triple the work for me.

If we had spent the first class explaining how to write a lab report, then maybe I wouldn't be handing out tissues in my office all morning. Of course, I could place the blame on the students for not even bothering to try and figure out the correct way to write a scientific paper and just handing me in bullshit work that they think deserves an A. But I like to think that it is my responsibility to actually teach them something. I mean, that's why I get paid the big bucks.

But, I don't run the course. And my advisor has been teaching for longer than I have been alive, so he thinks he knows what he's doing.

So now I am off to grade more reports and hope that none of the students in my afternoon meetings start crying ....

(I should note that I am not a completely heartless bitch. I also have been known to cry about school work. I cry when things don't go as I had expected they would. Or (and you can ask Ry for confirmation) I also cry for really no good reason after very stressful situations (like big presentations or the Qs). BUT, I do NOT cry at school or in front of professors. I try to keep my tears hidden. These people have an influence on my future and I do not want my letters of reference to say "She did well when she wasn't crying".)

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